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Is obesity the most serious threat to equine welfare in the UK?

Equine vets must take a united approach to the growing obesity problem

27 September 2019, at 1:30pm

Anyone concerned about climate change must be saddened by the vitriolic tirades masquerading as public debate over that issue. According to a recent poll, only 63 percent of Americans believe global warming is happening. There is an excellent book which accounts for the discrepancy between what is written by the scientific community and what many of the population choose to believe. The book, written by George Marshall, is called Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.

This situation is somewhat mirrored in the debate over the importance of equine obesity. There is a view that equine obesity is now so common that it has become accepted by many as the norm. This could be a contributory factor in why we are struggling to get the message across. Many excellent scientific papers have highlighted the issue over the last few years but for whatever reason, these scholarly articles at least partially failed to get the message across.

In 2018, an excellent initiative took place involving a round table forum and online discussion between eminent experts such as BEVA Council member David Rendle and past BEVA President Mark Bowen. This was one of the first initiatives to use the Delphi method – an expert consensus method. The theory behind this method is that the interaction of experts may lead to a reduction in individual bias. In an attempt to obtain veterinary expert consensus via the internet, both published and unpublished research was considered and where research evidence was conflicting or absent, collective expert opinion based on the clinical experience of the group was applied. The opinions expressed were the consensus of views expressed by the participants. Where agreement was not reached, opposing views were presented such that colleagues could understand the arguments fully. The resulting article can be found in UK-VET Equine and was published online on 11 September 2018. It provided excellent guidance to vets caring for equids, which they could pass on to their clients.

Accepting obesity as a serious health and welfare issue is easy for equine vets. It is important to communicate this to owners – something which has not been as successful thus far. To gain insight into how best to improve this communication, BEVA ran a survey in 2018 to understand how BEVA members perceive the issue and what they are already doing to tackle it. Much of the credit for this piece of work goes to Nicky Jarvis. Nicky identified that there are no studies out there to tell us how successful weight management programmes are in the equine world. The survey drilled down into what practices looked at in their weight management clinics and what this service entailed. Successful weight clinics involved much more than the use of a weigh-bridge or weigh taping of the horse. For the full results of the survey and further information, go to the BEVA website.

Meanwhile, the scientific work continues with a paper by David Rendle, Pat Harris and Nicola Menzies-Gow due to come out with BEVA Congress in September. The paper is titled “Equine obesity: the most common risk factor for laminitis in the UK?” and is essential reading for all involved in the veterinary care of equids. The paper concludes that “Obesity represents a significant threat to equine welfare as a factor in the multiple health problems and most notably laminitis. Education is required to alter perceptions of what constitutes a healthy body condition score and what should be fed in order to maintain a healthy body condition. Dietary restriction and management are central to reducing obesity but exercise, pharmaceuticals and reduced rugging may all be valuable adjuncts in certain cases.”

Informative as such papers are, there is still the problem of how to convey this message to all horse owners. Horse & Hound has made significant efforts to highlight the issue. In May 2019, one piece described the benefits of including awards for horses of the healthiest weight at an equine show. The concept was enthusiastically embraced and was very popular among entrants, showing that owners want to tackle the issue.

BEVA has continued to highlight the issue through various initiatives. It will be running a pilot project in autumn to encourage vets to make routine visual condition assessments at vaccination. This will hopefully be extremely easy to put into effect and have a large uptake. The categories have been deliberately kept simple: healthy condition; overweight; dangerously overweight. We can do better in conveying the dangers of obesity to our clients with the use of growing resources from BEVA and other organisations.